This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The School District is about to get tough with its third and eighth graders. In those two grades, standardized test scores will become a factor in whether a student is promoted or held back, under a new policy slated to take effect next school year.
The School Reform Commission was expected to adopt the new requirements for the 2003-04 year.
Thousands of Philadelphia’s third and eighth graders will face retention under the new policy unless they can raise their scores at least into the "average" range on the TerraNova standardized test.
If third and eighth graders fail to reach the TerraNova cutoff on their first try in the spring, they will get another chance at the test after attending mandatory summer school. If they fail again, they will have to repeat a grade.
"We think this is a very rigorous policy," said School District CEO Paul Vallas as he introduced the plan at a meeting of the School Reform Commission in March.
Vallas implemented a similar policy as CEO of Chicago’s school system, and the program spurred controversy as it brought about a sharp upturn in the number of students held back.
Preliminary data on this year’s Philadelphia third graders show that as many as two-thirds would be in danger of not meeting the new promotion standard. By contrast, the retention rate for third and eighth graders in Philadelphia has averaged about 5 percent in recent years.
Tougher promotion policies were adopted by the Board of Education once before, in June 1998, under then-Superintendent David Hornbeck.
But those policies included a provision that the changes were to take effect only after additional supports for students were put in place, such as summer school, extended time, and transitional programs, which the District then lacked the funds to provide. A test score standard was applied to fourth graders in 2000, but ultimately the other test-based promotion requirements were shelved because the supports for students were lacking.
Countering grade inflation
Explaining his proposal for a stricterstandard, Vallas stated, "You’ve got to apply a testing standard at least at some grade levels until you have a confidence level that every child is being instructed at grade level."
"We’ve had grade inflation," he added. "Far too many kids have been promoted without even being close to where they should be academically."
Vallas said he wants to implement a testing standard for promotion to fourth grade "because all children should have mastered the reading and math fundamentals by third grade."
He added that he also supports a test cutoff in eighth grade "because we want all our students to be ready for high school."
Under current promotion policies, students must attend school regularly and pass their classes to get promoted to the next grade. In fourth and eighth grades, completion of a project is also required.
Vallas said it is too late to change these rules for this school year, and so the District is "still stuck with the old promotion standards from last year."
"It’s going to be hard for us to mandate summer school this year," Vallas stated.
But attendance at summer school will be strongly encouraged this year, and the District is expecting about 50,000 students in grades 3 to 10 to attend, at a cost of $20 million, Vallas said. The program will use curriculum from Voyager and Princeton Review, similar to the materials covered in the District’s extended day program.
If the new promotion policy takes effect next year, students in every grade from 3 to 10 will have to perform close to grade level on standardized tests to avoid being sent to mandatory summer school. In early June of each year, students will find out whether or not they achieved the necessary TerraNova cutoff score.
Third and eighth graders who don’t make the cutoff will be facing not only summer school but also possible retention. The second chance for students in these grades who don’t make the cutoff will be a modified, multiple choice version of the TerraNova test given at the end of summer school — a test with different questions than the spring TerraNova, but at the same level.
Average performance, at least
The promotion policy requires students to score "at or above the 26th percentile in both reading and mathematics on the TerraNova test" in order to be promoted to fourth or ninth grade. A score in the 26th percentile means the student performed better than one-quarter of the students nationally who take the test.
According to Chief Accountability Officer Joe Jacovino, "Students at the 26th percentile are in the ‘average’ band of performance, or what the test publisher calls ‘mid-level mastery.’"
Jacovino noted that the District has also created an additional "window," allowing some third and eighth graders to be promoted even if they score just below the 26th percentile. Students scoring in the 20th-25th percentile can be promoted by their schools if they have strong academic records, 90 percent attendance, and no major conduct problems.
This year, 8,516 third graders and 5,512 eighth graders would be eligible for summer school based on their fall TerraNova scores. Three-fourths of those students also scored below the 20th percentile and therefore would not be eligible for promotion regardless of the strength of their classroom record.
Vallas noted that he intends to adjust the minimum percentile score upward each year. He added that the District is setting the bar higher — closer to actual grade level than the test score standard used for promotion when he ran the Chicago schools.
Comments on the plan
In Chicago, Vallas cited improvements in academic performance across the District as evidence of his plan’s success. Critics there argued that the Chicago promotion policy resulted in retained students dropping out of school and in too much class time spent on drilling students for the test, see related article.
A few of those concerns are already being echoed in Philadelphia.
With the end-of-summer TerraNova test consisting entirely of multiple-choice questions, some local educators are saying it might lead summer school teachers to lean more toward test practice than toward teaching writing and higher-order skills.
Others are calling for more help for students to meet the testing standards.
"Standards are necessary but they are less than half the equation — there have to be the necessary supports in all our schools so that we don’t watch kids get tested and fail," said Shelly Yanoff, director of the child advocacy group Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth.
School Reform Commission member Sandra Dungee Glenn said she believes "the District is on more solid ground in establishing rigorous standards" — and cited the District’s plans for supporting students by improving the quality of teaching and the curriculum as well as providing extra help through extended day and summer school programs.
"For the next few years, I think it will be painful," Glenn added.
"We need to stay vigilant about whether we will be able to live up to those commitments to our students," she said.